Oscars battle set to begin amid crystals and controversy

Los Angeles - Hollywood's awards season comes to a close on Sunday at the Oscars, with war epic 1917 battling South Korean thriller Parasite for glory as a row swirls over the lack of minorities on the night's star-studded nominee list.

A lavish, spiral stage featuring 40 000 crystals at Los Angeles' Dolby Theatre will be the glittering setting as the 24 golden statuettes are handed out on Tinseltown's biggest night.

The frontrunner for multiple prizes including best picture is Sam Mendes's 1917, an innovative and personal World War I film that swept up trophies in the build-up to Sunday.

But the movie about two soldiers crossing no-man's-land - filmed to appear like one continuous shot - could find itself in a pitched battle with a movie determined to make history of its own.

Parasite, about a poor South Korean family infiltrating a wealthy household, looks to be a shoo-in for best international feature -- but could win much more.

"The big top prizes are coming down between Parasite and 1917," Variety senior film editor Marc Malkin told AFP. "Either one winning would be pretty great."

The unique ballot system for best picture - which involves voters ranking films - makes the race somewhat tough to predict.

But it could benefit Parasite, a film that appears impossible to dislike, and whose charismatic director Bong Joon-ho, 50, has gained cult status at Hollywood's many awards season galas and soirees.

"Every other movie, people say 'I liked it, but...'" said Malkin. "With Parasite, it's 'I love Parasite.' Period. The end."

He added: "Bong's enthusiasm and his joy are completely infectious."

Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood remains an outside shot, while Martin Scorsese's lavish crime epic The Irishman appears to have slipped out of contention.

KIRK AND KOBE

The event's luxury and glamour will contrast with the grief enveloping Los Angeles over the recent deaths of Golden Age film legend Kirk Douglas and Oscar-winning basketball star Kobe Bryant.

Both titans have been added to a hastily re-edited "in memoriam" montage honoring those Hollywood lost this year, with Billie Eilish expected to provide a moving musical accompaniment.

The record Grammy-winning singer, who will soon voice the new James Bond theme, is one of several high-profile musical guests on a night when all five nominated songs will be performed.

Elton John, tipped to win for (I'm Gonna) Love Me Again from Rocketman, will feature, as will Cynthia Erivo - the only non-white acting nominee, who also sang and wrote the theme to anti-slavery biopic Harriet.

No female directors were nominated this year.

Irish maestro Eimear Noone will become the first woman to conduct the Oscars orchestra, but diversity among guest hosts and performers is unlikely to assuage anger over this year's nominations.

"I wouldn't call it #OscarsSoWhite but I'd say it's #OscarsAsUsual," Deadline awards columnist Pete Hammond told AFP.

"It looks like the Oscars could have been 30 years ago."

'NO SCENARIO'

The Oscars in the acting categories - usually a subject of agonizing deliberation for industry pundits - appear settled, with the same four stars sweeping up rave reviews and prizes all season.

Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger are believed to be far ahead of the competition for best actor and best actress.

Phoenix underwent a striking transformation to portray the title comic book supervillain in Joker - as did Zellweger to play legendary Hollywood diva Judy Garland in Judy.

Tinseltown favorites Brad Pitt and Laura Dern have their fingertips on the supporting acting prizes, for their work as a laid-back stuntman (One Upon a Time... in Hollywood) and a cutthroat divorce lawyer (Marriage Story).

"I just don't see where there's wiggle room when it comes to the acting categories," said Malkin.

More fiercely contested will be the awards for best screenplay, editing and visual effects, with movies from Nazi satire "Jojo Rabbit" to period drama "Little Women" and even superhero epic "Avengers: Endgame" all in the mix.

The ceremony will go on without a host for a second consecutive time, after last year's batch of bright guest presenters caused a trend-bucking uplift in TV ratings.

The gala begins at 17:00 in Los Angeles and can be watched live from 03:00 on M-Net Movies Premiere (DStv 104).

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